‘Keep it simple’ is the epitome of folksy wisdom. You can appreciate where it’s coming from, but you can’t blindly follow it and indiscriminately simplify everything under the sun.

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The common wisdom amongst instructional designers is to avoid creating an information overload. Don’t overburden the learner. Just keep things simple. Make it easy.

Yeah well, I’m a reality junkie. I don’t think every job and every piece of content can be made easy. Some domains are inherently complex. Some people are expected to meet higher performance standards or sophisticated outcomes. ‘Keep it simple’ is the epitome of folksy wisdom. You can appreciate where it’s coming from, but you really can’t blindly follow it and indiscriminately simplify everything under the sun.

It’s far worse when we turn that folksy wisdom on ourselves and cap our professional development by avoiding information overloads ourselves! So, in the spirit of a love for learning and pragmatism I invite you to explore ideas about managing information overloads than only resolving to avoid them.

I for one am regularly lost and out of my depth because I keep reading things I’m not formally educated or trained to understand! As a habitual mental wanderer, I resort to some actions that really help make sense of masses of data. Here they are!

Setting the Right Conditions for Clarity

Before starting a task, it helps to remind myself why I’m doing it in the first place – what is the point of the activity? How does it help in the larger scheme of things?  What are the outcomes I need?

And then while processing the information, I step back every 15 minutes (how often you surface to get a bearings check is a very individual thing!) and ask myself if I kept track of what I’ve been doing and why I’ve been doing it.

Avoiding Common Traps

After watching myself and others, I’ve found there are certainly some mistakes that are easier to make!

We often think of tasks in terms of actions than their significance:

Before going through 50 documents on a project, it helps to build clarity about what we’re expecting to do with each document – we’re going to skim through one, read another in-depth, get a summarized understanding of the third, note the highlights of the fourth, etc. Thinking of it in terms of ‘reading every file’ is really unhelpful.

We kid ourselves about whether we’re clear or not:

Actually, we do know the difference reasonably well between when we’re uncomfortable with our understanding and when we’re not. We only may not be too good at gauging if our understanding is robust enough for some particular end. But for the pieces we grab, it’s not that hard to perform a rigorous self-check of whether we have a firm grasp on them. (And as with so many things, practice in learning new things helps a lot.)

We fail to process details:

Processing a detail is different from trying to read it or remember it for later. If there’s a ton of information, which details are significant and how are they significant? We look for patterns and then start pulling apart the information into those nice, clear categories. How do you know what those categories are? You decide based on the nature of the information and the purpose of why you’re reading it.

Lack of prioritization:

This may be in terms of attention, time, or effort. The bigger the information overload the clearer it pays to be about which document you want to skim and which one you really want to understand thoroughly. Accordingly, the time, work, and depth of concentration we throw at the document will vary. Why waste time understanding every word of a document you had identified you needed to only skim?

Equating general fluency with domain fluency:

The more specialized or technical the information we’re handling, the more important this distinction is. We may know the meaning of every word used in a technical paper but understand nothing of the paper itself. That’s because we may be good at reading the language the paper’s written in, but don’t know much of the subject that it’s talking about. The better our knowledge of the subject, the easier technical writing is to read.

That’s where this trap is closely tied to the last one…

Being intellectually complacent or lazy:

Just because we assume the going ought to be easier, we may skip doing things we used to do in more disciplined settings like professional training or formal education. There’s a reason we were taught to make notes, concept maps, look up an encyclopedia and similar practices! While it may seem like this would all slow you down, it really doesn’t. -Apart from the massive boost these practices give to our productivity, they do wonders for expertise building. And while it is fashionable to debate it, I’ll root for handwritten notes over digitally typed ones for inadvertent memorization value any day!

Those are some things that I deliberately do to manage an information overload. How about you? Let me know!

Written by Mridula R., Principal Learning Consultant @ Learnnovators

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